Get Out is one of the best horror films this year, and it’s been a particularly good year for horror. The directorial debut of comedian Jordan Peele, Get Out is the story of Chris Washington, a young black photographer who reluctantly agrees to meet his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. Bad things happen. As well as being really, really good, Get Out was phenomenally successful, grossing $254 million over a $4.5 million budget.
If a movie is critically acclaimed, financially successful and not a blockbuster, chances are that its financial success will be followed by a series of articles on what lessons Hollywood should take from its success. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s predictable enough that I wasn’t surprised when it happened to Get Out.
I hate these articles.
I mostly hate them because they lack rigour. The basic structure of all these articles is as follows: the critic lists some of the good qualities of the movie (usually the qualities whose goodness affirms their own opinions about how movies should be) and then says “and the movie was successful, so Hollywood should make more films like that”. Leaving aside how that’s literally how Hollywood became such a mess in the first place – studios always trying to reverse-engineer the next big hit from the last big hit instead of taking risks – it’s also just gibberish. These articles don’t use any consumer data or anything to deduce a causal relationship between the qualities a film possesses and its probable return on investment. Most film critics don’t even go to the same screenings as general audiences, so it’s not like they even have the anecdotal evidence of post-film chatter. They just make assumptions about what mass audiences enjoy based on a vague caricature of what they think ordinary people are like and then publish it as expert commentary.
I also hate these articles because they reek of desperation. In a world where I have literally never seen a notable film critic ever write about any actual economic reform of the film industry, these articles read as little more than self-consciously futile acts of public prayer directed at the corporations that dominate mass media. “Are you there, Comcast? It’s me, Mark Harris. Please, oh please, make more good movies like Get Out.” But the major studios aren’t going to “learn the lessons” of whatever success has critics in paroxysms of hollow hope. The studios know people like movies with good characters and snappy dialogue, movies that have a personality and make them feel emotions. I hate this year’s other big horror success, Split, but it feels like it was made by a human being, and however crudely and bluntly it makes you feel things, it did, at least, make you feel things.
But films like Split and Get Out are hard to pull off. They require bold moves that always risk backfire – big performances that could fall flat (James McAvoy in Split), big swings on themes traditionally presumed to alienate mass audiences (contemporary racism in Get Out) and the ever-present risk that any highly personal work of art might just be too weird for other people to interact with (both Split and Get Out straddle the line between humour and horror in ways that I found disgusting and compelling respectively). Films made by actual filmmakers pursuing a creative vision, rather than rent-a-directors sketching in the detail on a corporate blueprint, can’t be focus-tested until they appeal to an imaginary archetype of every demographic, until they’re all things to all people, and therefore nothing. They offer narrow and specific experiences that gamble on their own ability to connect with people, and giant conglomerates don’t have time for those kind of risks when they can just flood the market with movies that are guaranteed performers at the box office because they offer people the comfort of consistency in a time when depressed wages and longer, more erratic working hours make nights out more costly and rare. Their approach to the business of film reminds me of the old thought experiment about Haydn and the oyster:
“You are a soul in heaven waiting to be allocated a life on Earth. It is late Friday afternoon, and you watch anxiously as the supply of available lives dwindles. When your turn comes, the angel in charge offers you a choice between two lives, that of the composer Joseph Haydn and that of an oyster. Besides composing some wonderful music and influencing the evolution of the symphony, Haydn will meet with success and honour in his own lifetime, be cheerful and popular, travel and gain much enjoyment from field sports. The oyster’s life is far less exciting. Though this is rather a sophisticated oyster, its life will consist only of mild sensual pleasure, rather like that experienced by humans when floating very drunk in a warm bath. When you request the life of Haydn, the angel sighs, ‘I’ll never get rid of this oyster life. It’s been hanging around for ages. Look, I’ll offer you a special deal. Haydn will die at the age of seventy-seven. But I’ll make the oyster life as long as you like…’”
Marvel aren’t the envy of every other studio because they figured out a formula for films that people love because they’re so enriching and beautiful, it’s because they figured out a formula for films that provide a mild dull pleasure that anyone can enjoy (or withstand) for just about two hours and then forget about immediately. Marvel have unlocked the secret to selling the oyster life to people who want the life of Haydn, and every other studio is trying to replicate it. I understand why so many critics feel the need to scream into the void. The current state of pop culture is a horrible, boring, endless prison, but we can’t beg the warden for our freedom, we have to revolt. In the short-term, we need to break up the studios to fix Hollywood’s warped financial incentives, and, in the long-term, we need to completely decouple the production of art from the generation of profit.
But in the meantime, we still need good movies in our lives, and any glitch in the system that allows good movies to be made should be exploited as much as possible. I think horror movies are just such a glitch.
I won’t pretend I know any better than anyone else why any given movie is successful or not. I don’t have any consumer data. I’d guess Blumhouse Productions have a pretty good idea, since they made Split and Get Out, two films that grossed more than a quarter of a billion dollars each over budgets of $9m and $4.5m respectively, as well as Happy Death Day, which turned out another hundred million over a budget of $4.8m. Box office is usually discussed purely in terms of its absolute dollar value, sometimes adjusted for inflation, but that doesn’t really make sense from a business perspective. Avatar is the second highest-grossing film of all time, but it only made a little over ten times its budget, whereas the highest-grossing film of all time, Gone with the Wind, made over one hundred times its budget. Gone with the Wind’s rate of return pales in comparison to movies like Rocky (210 times its budget), Bambi (310 times its budget) or the early exploitation film Mom and Dad (over 1500 times its budget). Measured by return on investment, the highest-grossing films of the past several years have been duds. Beauty and the Beast is the highest-grossing film of 2017 so far and its gross is just under eight times its budget. By contrast, Blumhouse’s average return for the year so far, even with a slate that mostly consisted of micro-budget movies with limited or VOD releases, and even a couple of flops, is sixteen times the budget. Blumhouse have spent this year kicking major studio’s in-house productions to death on the street, and if they have a trade secret, they’re not about to share it.
But I think there’s still a lesson to be learned from their success. Just not a lesson for studios.
I can’t say I know why Blumhouse’s films in particular are so profitable, but I can say with a fair degree of certainty that Blumhouse’s corporate strategy is so robust because it invested in a low-risk genre. I’ve read reams of box office numbers from the past ten years to verify this, and as far as I can tell, it is essentially impossible not to make a profit on a horror film if you give it a wide release, regardless of quality. Unfriended grossed sixty-four million dollars over a million budget and that movie is the hackiest piece of crap since The Devil Inside, a movie that made over a hundred million dollars, also on a million-dollar budget. By horror movie standards, The Bye Bye Man was a super weak performer, since it only made a little more than triple its budget rather than fifteen (Don’t Breathe), twenty (IT) or fifty-six (Get Out) times its budget, but even The Bye Bye Man made a profit, and it looks like it was filmed by a teenager on a camera twice their age.
I don’t know why some horror movies are more profitable than others, but I know that demand for horror movies is so inelastic that almost any horror movie given a wide release at almost any time of year will make a profit. Split came out in January, Get Out in March, Annabelle: Creation in August, IT in September, and they all grossed at least a quarter of a billion dollars. While less impressive, The Bye Bye Man and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (January), Rings and Life (March), Alien: Covenant (May), 47 Metres Down and It Comes at Night (June), Flatliners (September) and Jigsaw (October) all made comfortable profits, and they cover the entire range of modern horror, from remakes that no one asked for and franchise blockbusters to provocative arthouse films and sharksploitation movies.
I don’t know why demand for horror is so consistent. Lots of people have lots of theories, from a range of psychological explanations about catharsis and stuff to horror films’ timelessness as a rite of passage for teenagers. For the purposes of this article, it doesn’t really matter why, it just matters that it’s true, because it suggests at least one avenue where original, personal filmmaking can sneak its way into Hollywood outside Oscars season. I’m just starting out as a young filmmaker myself, with a crappy ten-year old camera and dreams of one day owning a tripod. I don’t really care about making movies that are profitable, but the people who control access to filmmaking resources do. What I’ve learned from the success of Get Out is that the sheer reliability of horror films as an investment means horror is maybe the only genre where you can, for want of a better phrase, get away with shit. It’s hard to imagine loads of people turning out for a sombre legal drama about how secular law should judge religious actions, but wrap it in horror and you’ve got the smash success of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Horror is the only film genre where women get as much screen time and dialogue as men. I’ve seen loads of movies about racism in the United States, but I’ve never in my life seen a wide-release movie whose director was allowed to be as brutal and vicious in his portrayal of contemporary white racism as Jordan Peele is in Get Out. Studios love a good film about racism in the past (12 Years a Slave, A Time to Kill, Remember the Titans), and there are lots of indies about contemporary racism (Fruitvale Station, American History X, This Is England), but a wide-release movie about how racism lives in the here and now, and especially among a population not typically indicted in such movies (upscale white liberals), could only be a horror movie, because it’s the only place you can do pretty much whatever you want and still promise your financial backers a healthy return on their investment.
In other words, the inelastic demand for horror films is a breach in the wall where a little soul and artistry can sneak in to crash the corporate party, at least one avenue where personal movies can still be made in a time of focus-tested films-as-products where movies that dare to be idiosyncratic are rarely seen by anyone who doesn’t live in a major metropolitan area. Filmmakers who want to trick the corporate studio system into letting them make weird, personal or challenging movies have a chance to do so through horror.
That’s the real lesson of Get Out’s success.